NetworkED 2016 #NeD16

I heard about, and found myself attending, the 2016 NetworkED conference as a result of @Ezzymoon asking if I were going (she wasn’t)and the postponement of Birmingham City’s game because Leeds United were still in the FA Cup. 

I went with the aims of hearing writers Sue Cowley and Martin Robinson speak and introducing myself to Nancy Gedge whose blog I follow and enjoy. I achieved all three of those aims and could, on that basis, have gone home happy but, as it turned out, I took far more than I could have hoped for from an excellent day. 

Before the day began, over coffee, I had an interesting discussion about transition between primary and secondary. Since the LSE report on the success of London education identified sustained progress in primary schools feeding into secondary, I have been thinking about transition and the lack of understanding on both sides of the age divide.  The DfE focus on reform of secondary examinations and the need for primary pupils to be “secondary ready” flies in the face of the evidence about how to promote progress into Year 7. To begin the day talking to a secondary teacher who delivers a humanities-based, thematic curriculum to Year 7 and 8 was a timely and encouraging reminder that there is excellent provision out there. 

An important aspect of the success of the day was the time built in for informal networking. During the breaks I had a number of very valuable conversations that contributed to my developing thinking across a range of issues. 

Sue Cowley’s session on her involvement with a packaway Early Years setting was fascinating for its positive reflection on such challenging (everything is packed away every evening-hence the term) provision. It was good to hear that forest schooling is still alive and well in Somerset, from where it originally spread across the UK. That her setting gives over an entire day each week to Forest School is closer to the original approach than most primaries where outdoor areas are timetabled or provision delivered after school. There is still awareness in Sue Cowley’s setting of compromise because the parents who do not like the idea of their child being outdoors for a long time will keep her/him at home on that day.

I chose a workshop on leadership which proved to be a lively debate around two presentations. Jules Daulby talked through the data about gender and leadership in the context of the variety of career trajectories experienced by teachers. From the floor, a contributor gave an anecdote of telling Senior Managers where they could stick their promotion because of the unreasonable expectations attached. For me, that is a key message as teachers need the confidence to take hold of their own trajectory.  The second part of the workshop was a passionate talk from Keziah Featherstone on leading a school in challenging circumstances. The talk about the reality of her daily experience was rooted in her belief in authenticity. She included very useful advice about basing job applications on your own values rather than trying to second guess what answers governors are seeking to their questions.

During the lunch break I read three excellent posters on issues relating to SEN: wellbeing of pupils with SEN; autism in females and parental perceptions of statutory assessment in the early years. The posters reflected research and professional practice in areas where relatively little is known. One of my regrets of the day was not having time to read Holly Sanders work on Teaching Assistants  but, as with the workshops I did not attend, I will make a point of looking out for it in future. Just before I went back into the conference room, I had the chance to talk to Kerry Macfarlane and Naomi Ward about their work on teacher wellbeing for which there is a growing demand and need.

Rob Webster’s talk on research and the media highlighted the misuse of research in headlines and how this can feed policy. In US and UK, research in which Rob has been involved, has been used to justify proposed cuts to teaching assistant roles. The research called for more effective use of teaching assistants not their removal.  Misreporting  of the research is threatening the jobs of a large number of low paid, overwhelmingly female staff; a move that will damage children’s learning. 

Martin Robinson’s talk was as eloquent as his writing.  Although my primary mentality leads me to disagree with some of Robinson’s emphasis, his argument is so well-thought through and articulated, that it inspires reflection. His delivery is what you would expect from a drama teacher with great use of voice and gesture to engage the audience. What I like about him is that he is difficult to pigeonhole. He talks of tradition but his love of the arts places his ideas apart from the narrow utilitarianism of the global education reform movement. He is an atheist  who understands and values the Catholic intellectual tradition.  He is as comfortable referencing Public Enemy as Beethoven. The challenge Robinson laid down in his talk was readily taken up by the audience. He was challenged as to whether his ideas were too backward looking and class-based. His response was well-argued but then a very good point was made from the floor which was that we should value the groundwork of secondary education because it enables people to engage with philosophy and the arts when they are ready, which is sometimes in further education.

Dr Paul Vare had the difficult task of following Robinson but did it well. In an empirical age of random controlled testing, Vare provided a clear explanation of his work promoting action research among a group of teachers drawn from three schools within a Teaching School Alliance. It was a very articulate promotion of the importance of teachers understanding their classroom through participating in research rather than just receiving information. 

The day finished with a panel discussion based on participant questions recorded on post-it notes throughout the sessions.  The keynote speakers were joined by Dr Barbara Brown and Liane Pticher-Leigh and there were a series of constructive discussions around the possibilities of practitioner research.

On a personal note,  I was delighted to meet Nancy Gedge who is such a supportive, encouraging and positive voice on Twitter.  She was incredibly calm for a conference organiser and, alongside fellow organisers Lynda Kay and Liane Pticher-Leigh, should be very proud of such a successful day.  As well as Nancy Gedge, I was able to meet a number of people from the EduTwitter world including the Special Education expert Michelle Haywood and Secondary English teacher Becky Wood. Twitter can be a negative environment of clashing egos but it also puts me in contact with open-minded professionals whose varied perspectives add significantly to my own understanding. I was also very pleased to bump into a Newman University PGCE School Direct student who told me she attends conferences because, as a salaried student, she is not allowed enough time in University; a sentiment the NCTL would not wish to hear expressed.

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